Lockdown wrap: Black Lives Matter – an Oxford United perspective

On Thursday, I woke in the night feeling a bit overwhelmed with All The Things. If it wasn’t the pandemic, it was the recession, if it wasn’t the recession, it was civil rights unrest. 

This week I could write about the EFL’s ongoing ineffectiveness, but they’ve been ineffective, so not much has changed. Then I thought about the Black Lives Matter movement. I thought long and hard about it; maybe I could celebrate Oxford’s black players, but would it be too tokenistic and trite? It’s a bit ‘white privilege’ to feel like you have a licence to judge.

Then I saw comedian Desiree Burch talking about how overwhelming it feels to change society, she suggested that reflecting on your own views and actions was a heck of a start. So I did, and this is what I came up with…

When I first started watching Oxford United there was a player called Joe Cooke who captained the club for a period. My tactical awareness was limited; sometimes he played up front and sometimes centre-back. He was physical, fast and strong, but the real reason I knew his position was because he was the only black man in the team.

Joe Cooke might have been the first ‘real’ black person I was aware of. I knew people like Pele, Muhammad Ali and Cyril Regis but they were other-worldly, in rural Oxfordshire, there were very few black people around. Cooke might have been Oxford’s first black player, certainly one of the first. In every sense he stood out.

A few years later, when I started going to The Manor regularly we were spearheaded by striker Keith Cassells. Cassells scored a bucketload of goals, the fans sang a song to the tune of a British Airways advert about him. He was physical, fast and strong. And black.

Cassells moved to Southampton; then came George Lawrence. Lawrence was a powerhouse, his thighs, smothered with Deep Heat, shone under The Manor lights. He would maraud down the wing, terrifying defences. The roar as he attacked down the flank lives with me now. Lawrence was physical, fast, strong. And black. 

Later would come Chris Allen; silky across the grass. There was a joke about having to put a Unipart advertising board up so he knew which direction to run. He was a whippet; physical, fast, strong. And black. More recently, there was Chey Dunkley, one of my favourite players from our promotion season – physical, strong, fast. And black. 

Over 40 years, it’s been a recurring theme; the adjectives used to describe black Oxford players were often physical. But with Cooke there was Shotton, with Cassells; Foley, Lawrence had Brock, Allen had Beauchamp, Dunkley had Wright. These players were usually described as technical, clever or leaders and were all white.  

I genuinely loved Cooke, Cassells and the others, they provided some of the most exciting times as a fan. Dunkley’s goal against Wycombe, his Cruyff turn at Wembley. Lawrence terrifying Manchester United and Arsenal on famous nights at The Manor. I have preconceptions of them, they’re all positive, but they exist.

It’s the preconceptions where the issue lies. Imagine tiny fragments of preconceptions building up over centuries. Imagine them often being negative and being held across millions of people; not just the physical, but cultural; preconceived ideas about criminality, violence, intelligence and rationality all fusing together, building a picture of what we think a black person is.

Then imagine this being enforced, then reinforced over and over. Packed down under layers and layers of preconceptions until it becomes a rock, a solid, undeniable, fact. Then imagine it being confirmed by people you trust, people with similar misconceptions – friends, family – and the governments and institutions here to represent and look after us. Over and over again. Right up to the point where you can kneel on someone’s neck and kill them and somehow justify the act in your head.

Most people never get to that point, of course, but most, myself included, judge people based on the mess of their experiences. I have watched a disproportionate number of strong, physical and fast black people playing football. That is big part of my experience of black people and, unchecked, could form a big part of my preconception. It is my responsibility to challenge those experiences deconstruct what my brain thinks it knows. 

We all do it; we all judge things based on preconceptions. It’s how the brain processes things quickly – it takes a quick snapshot, applies a liberal dose of preconception and decides on an action. People dismiss their own views as being unfettered by preconceptions. ‘All lives matter’ is the sobriquet used by those opposing the focus on black people. It sounds logical and correct, but it ignores the evidence that black lives appear to be preconceived as significantly more disposable, in other words, they matter less. 

My preconception of physical, strong, fast black footballers is fairly benign but not to be ignored. Sprinter Linford Christie spoke about how a media obsession with his ‘lunchbox’ – a bit of a joke, but ultimately a racial stereotype – drove him to distraction. Differentiating people based on the colour of someone’s skin is what creates racism. Most white people don’t abuse or attack black people, but we’re all bombarded with information that drives us to pre-define what a black person is. That’s very likely to influence your actions and the actions of others.

It’s not always violent, it’s not always abusive, it’s not even always negative, but those preconceptions are evidently wearing, debilitating, frustrating and exhausting. I’ve been in work situations where people have pre-judged me with little opportunity to challenge or prove them wrong, it’s maddening. Imagine that, but handed down over centuries, chipping away until the anger boils over and there’s little to lose from taking action, which is where we are today.

I need to check my preconceptions constantly and attack my illogical conclusions, recognise the narrowness of my experience and that those experiences, though no less ‘real’, are not the same experiences as others. And despite all that, despite driving my subconscious into my consciousness and picking those thoughts apart I still have preconceptions based on race. And that is not to apologise for people’s racism and excuse them from their actions, it’s to promote the idea society moulds you long before you realise it’s having an effect on how you act. There is a responsibility on us all to challenge those ideas, break them up and push them aside. It’s a life’s work. 

When I reflect, one of the reasons I really like Chey Dunkley during 2015/16 is not his physicality, it was his backstory. He once described himself as the club mascot because he couldn’t get a game, his first start that season against Bristol Rovers was shaky and he should have been sent off, but he’d posted pictures pre-season working on his fitness, he was studying for his degree, I liked him because of how hard he was working to get to where he wanted. By April he was doing Cruyff turns at Wembley and the next month scoring against Wycombe to win promotion. It’s such a great story, I so want him to play in the Premier League.

Anti-racism rhetoric can come across as preachy; it’s easy to dismiss it as ‘woke’ or politically correct. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that even if you’re tired of the ethical and moral arguments, if you feel you ‘get it’ and wish people would stop scoring moral points, there is a perhaps an additional point that pre-judging people is generally ineffective. 

I don’t want to judge the motivations of racists and apologists, but I can categorically say that I have a personal responsibility to keep my pre-conceptions in check and adjust my behaviour. My experience of black people and black culture is only positive, my upbringing and environment has encouraged me to be accepting of things I haven’t experienced and be liberal towards others. I know that every time I’ve tripped up and prejudged people based on broad brush ideas of gender, sexuality, nationality or ethnicity, I’ve been wrong – not just morally and ethically wrong – though that as well – but materially, objectively and factually wrong.

Cassells became senior award winning policeman, Lawrence a football agent, Allen a professional coach retained by three of the best managers we’ve had – Wilder, Appleton and Robinson. Chey Dunkley has a sports science degree from the country’s top university in the subject. Smart, capable people, not just physical, strong and fast people. 

Perhaps you don’t pre-judge people, but when I stop and think, I know as much as I don’t want to; I do. Judging people on their appearance is natural, but it’s also an ineffective way of drawing conclusions about them. But, there it is, pre-judging – racism – I’m certain it exists in all of us to some extent and impacts the lives of many people, which is why it’s important to keep explicitly reminding yourself that black lives matter.

Midweek Fixture: Every Oxford United player from the 90s ranked – 50-1

It’s the final countdown of the top 50 players of the 1990s. You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2. But, here come the heavy hitters that took us through to the end of the millennium.

50 – Anton Rogan

A tidy and assured full-back who signed from Sunderland. He didn’t quite get us promotion, but was part of the squad that turned us around before we went up in 1996. 

They walk amongst us: Now owns a taxi company in Woodstock.

49 – Andy Thomson

There were moments when Andy Thomson showed what a light touch and natural eye for goal he had. Sadly those times weren’t very often.

They walk amongst us: Now an assistant coach for the Scottish Women’s national team.

48 – Andre Arendse

A South African international who played in the World Cup, Andre Arendse was a master of the goalkeeping arts. Those he chose to get involved in; diving, shot stopping and catching were all beneath him.

They walk amongst us: Is now a pundit on South African TV channel Supersport as well as a goalkeeping coach.

47 – Steve Foster

A brand as much as a player; Foster’s trademark headband and tight curly hair made him one of the most recognised players in the country. Sadly, by the time we got him he was past his best, but still a formidable leader in his time.

They walk amongst us: Now lives in Brighton.

46 – Simon Marsh

Simon Marsh had a strange career. A contemporary of Paul Powell and Joey Beauchamp among others, Marsh looked all set to be a marginal character. Then he managed to get a run in Malcolm Shotton’s team that vaguely threatened the play-offs in 1998. It resulted in an England Under-21 cap and a transfer to Birmingham City at which point his career hit a brick wall.

They walk amongst us: Now runs the sports coaching business

45 – Nick Cusack

During quieter years, fans start to look for things to entertainment themselves; that’s when cults rise. The cult of Nick Cusack grew out of the fallow early-90s; an attacking midfielder who couldn’t really score in a team that did even less. At first it was frustrating, then it felt rather appropriate.

They walk amongst us: Is literally the deputy chief executive of the PFA.

44 – Mark Stein

Mark Stein was one of those players; had the pace and skill to be a world class, and the temperament to disappear. But, he won the League Cup with Luton and played in the Premier League and a Cup Final for Chelsea. Somewhere in amongst it all he played for us. 

They walk amongst us: Now works in a school for deprived children.

43 – Mark Angel

Mark Angel looked like he played bass in a marginal Madchester baggy band with his mop of curly hair gelled into a centre parting. He had his moments but was always overshadowed by other wingers at the club.

42 – Gary Smart

During the 90s we were a tidy club made up of tidy players, we had to be, we couldn’t afford to gamble. Gary Smart was one of the tidiest of them all. 

41 – Alex Dyer

Alex Dyer was a talented and sometimes frustrating player; what he lacked in pace he made up for in his head. A slow burner who earned the respect of the London Road through is relentless consistency. The London Road would echo to the tune of Alex Dyer M’Lord, Alex Dyer.

They walk amongst us: Is now the assistant manager for the Scottish national team

40 – Jimmy Phillips

The early-90s are a bit of a blind spot for me, I didn’t get to a lot of games because of university and so a number of players swirl around my head as though one. For me, Dave Collins, Nick Cusack, Jimmy Phillips all merge into one. Jimmy Phillips isn’t the other two.

They walk amongst us: Is under 23 coach for Bolton Wanderers and managed them briefly last season.

39 – Dave Smith

The 90s Simon Clist; was once subjected to a racial slur from Mike Ford in the matchday programme – something to do with his complexion and taxis. He frustrated fans a lot of the time due to his conservative style, but provided a solid platform for Joey Beauchamp, Chris Allen and Stuart Massey during our promotion season.

They walk amongst us: Rumour has it, somewhat ironically given Mike Ford’s joke, he set up a chauffeur company for celebrity footballers

38 – Robbie Mustoe

Mustoe was one who got away. He broke into the team in 1987 from the youth ranks, but couldn’t get any traction. Eventually, he slipped away to Middlesbrough where he played over 350 games and ended up enjoying a lengthy career in the Premier League.

They walk amongst us: Is a Premier League football pundit for NBC in the US

37 – Paul Wanless

One of those players whose ranking was probably more down to what he did at other times. A marginal player who graduated from the youth ranks in 1991, but never quite made it and headed off to Cambridge. Returned in 2003 for a few solid years at The Kassam before retiring.

36 – Martin Gray

Scuttling midfielder who dedicated his life to perfecting the sideways pass. An unrelentingly frustrating player to watch, yet alongside Dave Smith (39) was the bedrock of the 1996 promotion team.

They walk amongst us: Now teaching kids the value of the conservative sideways pass in his own academy.

35 – Pål Lundin

Aka – porn star. Comedy Swedish goalkeeper who shared responsibilities for letting in goals during 1999-2000 with Andre Arendse (48). Perhaps most famous for scoring a penalty in a Football League Trophy game against Wycombe. Yep, that was the high point.

34 – Ceri Evans

A Crewe fan once told me that he’d heard a fan ref heckle the ref at The Manor asking whether he’d been bribed with a place at the University. Funny right? His head would have exploded if he’d known we had a Rhodes Scholar in the back-four.

They walk amongst us: Looks like a Bond villain, but now runs his own medical practice.

33 – Martin Aldridge

The saddest story; Aldridge was a natural goal poacher; in any other era, he’d have been a first choice striker, but in the merry-go-round of Paul Moody, David Rush and Nigel Jemson he was mostly used as an impact player. Left the club in 1998 and was killed in a car crash two years later.

32 – Brian Wilsterman

The 1990s saw the emergence of the Premier League and all its cosmopolitan spirit. At Oxford United it was a time of great centre-backs. At the intersection of those two things was Brian Wilsterman. We loved him because he was from the same source as Cruyff and Bergkamp, we hated him because he was calamitous.

They walk amongst us: Ever the defender, he now runs a security company, while his son plays for FC Lienden.

31 – Paul Reece

The more I think about Paul Reece, the smaller he gets. A particularly spongey goalkeeper capable of pulling off remarkable finger-tip saves, even from back-passes. Much of his ranking comes from perhaps the greatest Oxford United goalkeeping display of all time; away at Derby.

They walk amongst us: Currently goalkeeping coach in the US.

30 – Mark Watson

A majestic centre-back and Canadian international who got caught up in the slow collapse of the club in the late 90s. When the club wanted to give him a new contract in 2000, he simply ran away.

They walk amongst us: Is part of the coaching staff at MLS side Minnesota United

29 – Christophe Remy

As we teetered on the edge of financial crisis, the presence of the endlessly likeable Frenchman lightened the mood around the place. A very capable full-back and our favourite non-British player of the 90s. 

They walk amongst us: His Twitter profile says he’s an entrepreneur

28 – Alan Judge

A vote more for what he did outside of the 90s. By 1990, Alan Judge’s Oxford career was winding down. But he’d been first choice keeper in Division 1 and played in the Milk Cup winning team. Briefly revived his career in 2003 during an injury crisis.

They walk amongst us: Now a driving instructor in Bicester.

27 – Martin Foyle

He looked like your dad, but was probably younger than you. There was nothing sexy about Martin Foyle, but he had a knack for scoring goals.

They walk amongst us: Head of recruitment at Motherwell in the SPL

26 – Paul Gerrard

The best loan player of the 90s; signed from Everton and only played 16 games, but left a lasting impression. Attempts to sign him permanently were thwarted, he was just too good for us.

They walk amongst us: Goalkeeping coach at Doncaster Rovers

25 – Les Phillips

Probably not the 25th best player of the 90s in truth, but being a member of the 1986 Milk Cup winning team gives you a bit of a boost in these things.

24 – Jamie Cook

There was Beauchamp, Allen and Paul Powell and there was Jamie Cook. Often the third wheel in a merry-go-round of wingers during the 90s, he eventually headed off to Crawley and enjoyed a decent career. Returned in 2009, funded partly by the fans, and scored one of the greatest goals at the Kassam against Luton.

They walk amongst us: A golf club manager at Heythrop Hall.

23 – Andy Melville

The 90s was full of great centre-backs, Andy Melville was among the best. The Welsh international and captain led the team through the early 90s before moving onto better things. Returned as a coach for five years.

They walk amongst us: Now works for a sports agency.

22 – Nigel Jemson

Arrogant and unpleasant, it was a good job Nigel Jemson scored goals. Nothing dented his belief that the world revolved around him. There were very few who were sad to see him leave. In our second game at the Kassam, Jemson, by that point at Shrewsbury, ran the game, goading us to defeat. Suddenly we missed him dearly.

They walk amongst us: Is an estate agent back in Nottingham.

21 – Stuart Massey

I’m not much of a fighter, but I will kill and kill again if anyone tries to argue against my view that Stuart Massey is the reason we were promoted in 1996. Beauchamp was too passive, Allen too raw; Massey demanded that players played to his strengths. When he got the ball to his feet he could drop a cross onto Paul Moody’s head from anywhere on the pitch.

20 – Darren Purse

Darren Purse was our back-up centre back behind Matt Elliot and Phil Gilchrist. But that masked the real talent he was. Occasionally fiery, it was clear from his early days that he would go onto greater things.

They walk amongst us: Director of football at Malcolm Arnold Academy in Northamptonshire.

19 – Kevin Francis

Not the most multi-dimensional player we’ve ever seen, but what Kevin Francis did, he did well. I’ve had Amazon Prime deliveries which have arrived quicker than it took for messages to make it from his head to his feet but when you launched a ball into the box usually bounced off his head into the goal.

They walk amongst us: Is now a policeman in Canada.

18 – Matt Murphy

Matt Murphy was considered an intellectual because he once worked in a bank. The go-to boo boy for any 90s London Roader, nobody around that time thought they were watching the 18th best player of the decade. Yet, that’s what he was, and someone who has rarely been bettered since.

17 – John Byrne

A beautifully complete player who was the perfect complement to Paul Moody in attack, it was a partnership too pure to last. But while it did, Byrne, with his trademarked goal celebrations and perfectly quaffed mullet was the cool cat to Paul Moody’s nerdy big brother.

They walk amongst us: Always great with his feet; he’s now a musculoskeletal podiatrist.

16 – David Rush

After Johnny Byrne (17) left, David Rush was the perfect foil for Paul Moody; he had all the movement Moody didn’t. If you were a defender, even if you could deal with one; the other was a completely different challenge. In the roistering final stages of the 1995/6 season; David Rush was just the player we needed. 

They walk amongst us: Manager and coach at GPS Academy in Malta.

15 – Paul Simpson

The early 90s didn’t create many stars, but Paul Simpson was undoubtedly one. A winger with an eye for goal and a darling to fans of a certain vintage. 

They walk amongst us: World Cup winning coach of the England Under 20s.

14 – Mickey Lewis

Everything that Mickey Lewis lacked in ability he made up for in commitment. In 350 games, he gave everything to the cause. His career petered out where he took up a number of coaching roles and, on two occasions 4 years apart, caretaker manager.

13 – John Durnin

The 90s were synonymous with lad culture, so there was nothing better than a player known to enjoy a pint and a fight. So, there was David Rush (16), and before that there was John Durnin.

They walk amongst us: Living a quiet life being a violent racist.

12 – Paul Powell

There were times when Paul Powell was the best player I ever saw, with the ability to turn a game on its head with a drop of the shoulder and a jinking run. I thought he’d play for England. But it all seemed a bit too much and he never quite hit the dizzy heights. A broken leg stalled his career and he was never the same again.

11 – Mike Ford

He had the turning circle of a super tanker and the full range of appalling 90s haircuts, but Mike Ford was a true leader.

They walk amongst us: Banbury United manager and lecturer at the Activate Learning Academy in Oxford.

10 – Phil Whitehead

God.

9 – Les Robinson

The definition of a loyal club servant. There was a period when it was difficult to imagine Oxford United ever starting a game without Les Robinson. It is hard to describe a player who never put a foot wrong in 458 games. 

They walk amongst us: Head of education at Swancliffe Park, a specialist autism school. So, still being brilliant.

8 – Bobby Ford

Bobby Ford looked like the captain of your school’s second eleven. A graceful playmaker, he was one of those players who seemed to loath his talent. Inevitably made his way to the top flight with Sheffield United, but gradually fell out of love with the game.

7 – Dean Windass

A brief, ill-advised fling during a period of despair. Windass was bought with money we didn’t have from Aberdeen. He snaffled a pile of goals, including one against Chelsea in the FA Cup which nearly put them out. Was sold to Bradford within a year and the proceeds went into paying Aberdeen the money we hadn’t paid for him. A moment of glorious madness.

They walk amongst us: Got caught up in a tax avoidance scheme and now manager at East Hull FC.

6 – Phil Gilchrist

With Matt Elliot he made the greatest centre-back pairing the club has ever seen; including Shotton and Briggs. Blessed with pace and strength, Gilchrist was an absolute powerhouse during the mid-90s.

They walk amongst us: Senior housemaster at Ratcliffe College in Northampton

5 – Chris Allen

The very definition of raw talent. When the pitches were good and there was a Unipart sign to run into there was simply nobody who could touch Chris Allen. With Joey Beauchamp on the other flank, we were flying. Sadly things went sour in 1996 and Allen headed for Nottingham Forest where his career rapidly went downhill. After a period working in a leisure centre, he gradually worked his way back to the club and became one of its most respected coaches.

They walk amongst us: Oxford United coach.

4 – Jim Magilton

Given the manner of his departure, within 24 hours of putting Leeds United out of the FA Cup in 1994, fourth is a pretty good result for Jim Magilton. Signed from Liverpool, Magilton possessed a touch and fitnesse which propped up an otherwise average mid-90s team.

They walk amongst us: Now Elite Performance Director at the IFA.

3 – Paul Moody

A battering ram of a striker who looked like he hated the game. Given that he played with Nigel Jemson (22) that was probably true. Yet, despite this he conjured up iconic moments including a sublime hat-trick at Cardiff, the second goal against Peterborough to clinch promotion and an Arab spring which looked like a bag of snooker cues being thrown down the stairs.

They walk amongst us: Runs his own building and renovation business.

2 – Matt Elliot

Anyone who saw him play compares every Oxford United defender to Matt Elliot. An impenetrable force at the back; unbeatable in the air, calm and cultured on the floor, an attacking threat as much a defensive rock. It’s difficult to imagine a better all-rounder.

They walk amongst us: Now runs ME Sports.

1 – Joey Beauchamp

Well, obviously. This list was never about Joey Beauchamp who was pretty much guaranteed top spot from day one. A better player than Matt Elliot? Maybe not, but nobody has the narrative Joey Beauchamp does. Preston have Tom Finney, Everton have Dixie Dean, we have Joey Beauchamp.

Games of Note: Peterborough

4 May 1996 – 4-0 Home

The last game of the 1995/96 season, the week before we’d snuck into the automatic promotion places after a scintillating late season run. One more game, three more points, and then Denis Smith can wear a ginger wig and claim to be a future England manager.

25 March 2006 – 1-0 Home

After years of being trapped in a loveless relationship with Firoz Kassam, suddenly we were free. Our saviours? Nick Merry and Jim Smith. Their first game, a 1-0 win over Peterborough came with a goal from T’Cham N’Toya. It started beautifully, it just didn’t end so well.

20 August 2016 – 2-1 Home

Back in League 1 but no wins, we could really do with three points and a dose of last minute shithousery. Ah, Mr Maguire, so nice to see you.

30 September 2017 – 4-1 Away

Three defeats on the trot conceding eight goals in the process, what we really need to do is to go to promotion threatening Peterborough. A goal down at half-time, where do we go from here?

20 April 1993 – 2-1 Home

The eighth anniversary of our Milk Cup win, when shorts were short and Chris Allen had no control over his legs. Proper football.

Games of Note: Portsmouth

12th August 2017 – Home 3-0

Pep Clotet’s first home league game, fresh off the back of an opening day win over Oldham. Clotet introduced Gino van Kessel to the show to score a wonder goal. A result to propel us to the Championship? No, not really.

23rd January 2016 – Away 1-0

2016 and things were getting real. We were pushing for promotion, heading to Wembley in the JPT, we’d just beaten Swansea in the FA Cup. Could we keep our league form going through such hectic times against one of the biggest teams in the division? Jordan Bowery has the answer.

3rd August 2013 – Away 4-1

Perhaps the greatest opening day in our history. Portsmouth had been re-born as a fan run club after years of turbulence. They filled Fratton Park with optimism. We came for the sun and the larks. Nobody had banked on Alfie Potter.

14th August 1993 – Home 3-2

A good game, if not a great game, but one in which you’ll be reminded just how good a player Chris Allen was, particularly when the pitches were good and the sun was shining.

3rd November 1992 – Home 5-5

There are people who weren’t born in 1992 who still claim to have been at this all time classic. There are people who were there who still stay to this very day stay the final whistle just in case it happens again. 3-5 with a minute to go? Do you beat the traffic, or wait for a miracle?

New Year resolution: get rid of our squashy middle

To decide our future, we need to learn the lessons of our past. Our current home form and, in particular, the debacle of our defeat to Scunthorpe has all the signs of a not so recent past.

Whenever anyone asks me how we won promotion in 1996, not that anyone has ever done that. Let’s just pretend I’m a mystical soothsayer with a whisty beard that lives on top of a mountain and people come and ask me existential questions about Oxford United.

Right, whenever anyone asks me how we won promotion in 1996, I don’t point to Paul Moody’s goals, or Joey Beauchamp’s creativity or Matt Elliot’s defending. I talk about Stuart Massey.

Early in the 1995/6 season, Oxford United had in their ranks a homegrown talent destined for big things, Chris Allen was a Blackbird Leys boy with breathtaking pace playing down the left flank. He was the epitome of raw talent and, with Joey Beauchamp’s career capitulating at Swindon, was the next great hope to come out of the club. All Allen needed was a Unipart advertising hoarding to aim at; you just had to knock the ball in front of him and he was off. He possessed blistering natural pace, and once he was set free the only thing that would stop him was either a poor sense of direction, he wasn’t one for looking where he was going much, or being clattered to the floor by some galoop of a defender. And that invariably ended with a penalty.

Each season was the same, when pitches were good and the ball to ran true, Allen would skate across the turf scoring goals, winning penalties and occasionally weighing in with a few assists. However, as the season progressed and pitches got stickier, Allen’s influence would whither; where we had a Ferrari on the wing, we really needed a tractor.

The 1995/6 season started with moderate form; we’d capitulated the year before having lead the table at Christmas, and the lull seemed to have continued. Allen had started well though, scoring on the opening day of the season at home to Chesterfield as well as in a creditable 1-1 draw against Premier League QPR in the League Cup. The problem was we couldn’t win away. Allen was a regular in a faltering third tier team; which was no place for a prospect like him. There were inevitable questions about when he would leave and for where. After Joey Beauchamp had left for West Ham (and then Swindon), Allen was his heir apparent for the big time.

In October, Allen played in a chastening 4-1 defeat at home to Wycombe Wanderers. It was a gutless, ponderous performance and a watershed; we wouldn’t again be defeated at the Manor all season. More profoundly for Allen, it would prove to be his last start for the club; Smith didn’t need a summer specialist in a League 1 shit fight.

It wasn’t just Allen’s fluctuating form that concerned Denis Smith; Nottingham Forest were sniffing around the place. Brian Clough had just retired and while Forest were no longer the force they had been, this was still a big club. Allen’s head had been turned by Clough’s successor Frank Clark, allegedly buying him a Mercedes Benz as an incentive to seal a deal. Eventually Allen went out on loan to Forest before securing an ultimately disastrous permanent deal. His exit was a curious situation where a League 1 player who couldn’t getting a game was being moved up to the Premier League.

Replacing Allen, initially, was the more compact Mark Angel who signed from Sunderland and debuted the week after the Wycombe debacle away to Blackpool. But it was Stuart Massey who would emerge as the key to the season’s revival and success. The pivotal moment in that season was an away win over Burnley in January; the team’s first away win. Ironically it was Massey and substitute Allen that scored. Thereafter, Massey was almost ever present while Chris Allen played fitfully from the bench, his last action being in the 1-1 draw with Notts County.

Massey had none of Allen’s pace, he didn’t have Beauchamp’s ability to go past people, he wasn’t big and strong. But Massey could cross and it was his forceful personality that demanded that the ball was played into his feet. Suddenly Oxford stopped lumping the ball up to Paul Moody, or putting pressure on the returning Beauchamp to pull rabbits out of hats, or knocking the ball over the defence into a bog of a pitch for Allen to run onto or expecting midfield duo Dave Smith and Martin Gray to suddenly become creative dynamos in the mould of Jim Magilton. The promotion squad was full of strong characters; Ford, Robinson, Elliot, Whitehead, Gilchrist, Moody; Massey was the kind of player who they listened to, Allen was not.

Watching the debacle against Scunthorpe, the half-way point in the season, it struck me that we have a similar situation. We’re not a bad team and wholesale change isn’t needed, but something isn’t working. Early on, in a false attempt to appear dynamic we were launching balls from the back four straight into Constable and Smalley. While they were fighting valiantly upfront, they were either getting closed down or left chasing lost causes. Meanwhile when the ball came back the other way, Scunthorpe were able to advance unopposed. While Jake Wright had a poor game and his mistake cost us the first goal, with the defence getting so much airtime, it is inevitable that eventually a pass will go astray. With the strikers and defenders doing so much work, it’s also not a surprise that things become ragged as the game progresses and they tire.

So where is the midfield?Asa Hall and Danny Rose spend most of the game watching the ball sailing over their heads. If the ball does come onto their radar, they are rarely on the front foot, ready to do something useful with it. They are not demanding the ball in the way Massey used to. They will take whatever scraps dribble their way. With strong personalities of Wright and Mullins behind them and Constable and Smalley in front, Hall and Rose are left as passive bystanders.

It isn’t really about ability; in the main I don’t have a problem with either of them. If they were needed as substitutes, or to cover the odd game, then I’d have no concerns, but as a regular midfield, they seem incongruous to the rest of the team. We need someone who is going to demand the ball in the way that allows them to be involved in the play. This will prevent the prosaic one-dimensional approach we currently take. At the moment we end up going over the top, or round the outside and down the flanks; the middle of the pitch is surrendered.

Dave Kitson has been giving the midfield some structure, but his pathological ill discipline means we can’t rely on him. Andy Whing, of course, is the man who is supposed to be providing greater balance in the team. But judging by his tweets, he’s targeting a return in mid-February, and that’s still by no means assured. Can we rely on our away form to pick up in the meantime? We’re still in need of a whorey old midfielder, a Paul McClaren type, who is going to impose  a way of playing which uses all 11 players, not 8 or 9. This will take pressure off Rigg and Williams to be creative, or Mullins and Wright to spray Glenn Hoddle 50 yard passes from the back. This is easier said than done, of course, but it could be the key.

Wingers’ Week Part 2 – The winged trinity

By 1988 the club was beginning a period of Division 2 stagnation, dog days in comparison to today and at any other club it might have been considered a halcyon time. The thing was, what had gone before was so wonderful it meant that life in the 2nd tier was decidedly mundane. Despite this, the winger production line was about to shift into overdrive.

Joey Beauchamp had been a ball boy at Wembley in 1986 and eventually made his first-team debut three years later. All great clubs should have a homegrown legend. It wasn’t quite a one club career, but his dalliances with West Ham and Swindon proved only that money wasn’t as important as happiness. 

People brand Beauchamp as a lightweight and a mummy’s boy. He was notoriously quiet in the dressing room, but was mentally strong enough to know what he wanted. When the club was in financial difficulties, he was linked with moves to Nottingham Forest and Southampton but turned them both down. He got to the Kassam, providing a lineage from the peak of the Glory Years to the new era of the club, but was soon unceremoniously dumped by Firoz Kassam for being expensive, injured and ageing. A reasonable business decision, but one that indicated the callous and cold hearted Kassam-era within which the club suffered. Beauchamp left after 13 years, and was involved in almost all the good things that happened in that period – Tranmere, Blackpool, Swindon

On the other wing, for the early part of Beauchamp’s reign, was the gangling form of Chris Allen. Nowhere near as refined as Beauchamp, it’s fair to say that Allen was a little, well, raw. The joke was that he only knew when to stop running when he saw the Unipart advertising boards at the end of the pitch. His emergence suggested that Oxford were a natural breeding ground for wingers. 

In 1996, when we were hunting for promotion, Allen’s head was turned by a move to Nottingham Forest. He didn’t see the season out, moving to the City Ground and scoring his only goal for Forest in a Premier League game against Liverpool. He stayed at Forest for 3 years, playing just 25 games. At 27, his career capitulated and he played just 21 more league games. Interestingly, although Beauchamp’s career was more fulfilled, Allen’s involvement in football has been more sustained. Perhaps it was a sobering lessons of missing his opportunity, he now coaches the youth team.

Amidst these two homegrown talents was Stuart Massey. For all Beauchamp and Allen’s empathy, pace and youthful talent, I think Massey was absolutely pivotal to the 1996 promotion season. Beauchamp or Allen played instinctively, with Paul Moody providing a target up front, the temptation was to get the ball to him quickly. Massey, however, refused to be rushed. It gave us the patience to create a quality, not quantity, of chances. This was key to us to building up a momentum that became the great promotion onslaught of 96.

With Beauchamp, Allen and Massey at their peak in 1996, hiding shyly behind the scenes was yet another local winged wonder. Paul Powell, unlike his predecessors, was a spiky, feisty character. His pugnacious attitude suggested that he might have the steel to succeed where the others had failed. I thought he was more talented than Brock, Thomas, Allen and even Beauchamp. He completed the trinity of mid-90s Oxford-born wingers. It’s very rare that a player changes games on his own, Powell could do just that. Not only did he win balls and beat players, he scored too. None of the others were that complete. I thought he’d play for England. 

With the club teetering on the edge of collapse, Powell represented a beacon for our survival. If he stayed, he’d play to get us out of trouble, if he went, with the money madness ramping up in the Premier League, he’d pay for it. During a late season revival under Malcolm Shotton in 1998 Powell joined Simon Marsh in an England Under 21 squad which he eventually had to pull out of. His problem was fitness, much of it apparently self-inflicted. His career was already on the wane when he got a bad injury against Luton. Although he returned and had the honour of scoring the first goal at the Kassam, he was never the same again.